Defending Lost Causes and the Redemptive Moment in Carlyle

by Mark Wallace

Žižek’s premise in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009) is one of my favorites. With reference to Hegel, Lacan, the French Revolution and Stalinism (!) among other things, he tries to isolate ‘the redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection’ (7). It’s not the arguments against these things are not valid, but that ‘this is not the whole truth’ (7). Žižek is careful to point out that he’s not defending Stalinism, et al., but ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6). I hadn’t read this book before completing my thesis, but it would have fit Carlyle like a glove. Indeed, I used quotes from Feyerabend that make almost the same point as Žižek here. Mill makes similar points about the need to defend unpopular arguments in On Liberty, as well. Of course, I couldn’t delineate and theorize the ‘redemptive moment’ in Carlyle with the panache or theoretical acumen of Žižek, and I didn’t really try, as, in the end, I felt the need to reject any limiting of Carlyle’s work or influence to a ‘moment’ – or at least, I couldn’t come up with one moment that encapsulated enough to make it central. But, ok, one moment from Carlyle that sums up his radical potential (probably unrealized in his corpus overall), here is one that does it for me, from the great Sartor Resartus (of course):

“You see two individuals, […] one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his hour, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this; or what make ye of your Nothing can act but where it is? Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him: neither are those ministering Sheriffs and Lord-Lieutenants and Hangmen and Tipstaves so related to commanding Red, that he can tug them hither and thither; but each stands distinct within his own skin. Nevertheless, as it is spoken, so is it done: the articulated Word sets all hands in Action; and Rope and Improved-drop perform their work.

“Thinking reader, the reason seems to me twofold: First, that Man is a Spirit, and bound by invisible bonds to All Men; secondly, that he wears Clothes, which are the visible emblems of that fact. Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?—Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth. (Part 1, Chapter 9)

This, presented as a pseudo-quote from Teufelsdrockh, is a powerful thought-experiment which brings to the reader’s attention the fact that the law is, as Žižek said, grounded on a lie. The life and death of one are in the hands of another who is in no way essentially other, but has merely adopted or been given certain clothes which have the magical effect of producing obedience to instructions he may give in certain forms and in certain situations. Thus Carlyle is quite openly and with shocking frankness (this was mid-19th-century England) putting forward the Žižekian point that ‘the law is grounded on a lie’, that ‘its authority is without truth’ (Sublime Object of Ideology, Ch. 1). It is simply a matter of ‘clothes’: the essence of the judge and the criminal are no different; they are ontologically equal, yet one can casually bring death to the other, and employ the whole machinery of society to do so. This is a passage calculated to foment revolution in the minds of ordinary men and women, to inspire commitment to anarchism, the levelling of all persons and symbolic denuding of all. How could respect for legal and political authorities survive if this passage were taken to the popular heart? Impossible. Here, then, we have a radical core that should be kept in mind when we consider Carlyle’s reputation in the 19th c., one which invited us to look at all constituted authorities with a critical eye – to look at the people, not the symbolic authority with which they are invested.